When Does Our Union With Christ’s Death Occur? The Ongoing Dialogue on Limited Atonement (Part 2)
Now, is this not Calvary? And is not Christ's love for Paul expressed here? But if it was an undifferentiated act, without the union of the elect being considered in the expression of redeeming love therein, would it not follow that the same could be said by Pharaoh? The only way around this would be to say "who loved me [at my conversion] and gave Himself for me [on the cross]." I'm sure Dr. Svendsen will affirm that tou/ avgaph,santo,j me kai. parado,ntoj e`auto.nu`pe.r evmou/ refers to one act: both aorist participles refer to the self-giving of Christ upon the cross. So, if the atoning sacrifice is the very demonstration of Christ's love for Paul personally, how can the sacrifice bring forgiveness for all mankind?I think I have sufficiently shown in part 1 of this series that our union with Christ is based in Christ’s historical work on the cross, but that union does not occur (i.e., we don’t actually “die with Christ”) until the point of belief, just as we are not actually “buried with him” or “raised with him” until the point of belief—all three of these acts are conterminous.
Moreover, I do not hold that Christ’s death on the cross was an “undifferentiated act.” Is it beyond the scope of the Scriptures to suggest that Christ may have two distinct purposes in the atonement—one for the elect (to serve as a basis for their redemption) and one for the non-elect (to serve as a basis for their condemnation)? I don’t think it is; further, I think that’s just where the evidence leads us.
Here are the issues as I see them. First, I think the limited atonement view confuses the concept of being “chosen in Christ” (en [christos]) with the concept of union “with Christ” (sun [christos]). The former refers to the locus of God’s good pleasure and is said to be eternal, whereas the latter refers to union (or “identification with”) and is said to be applied in time. Ephesians 1 makes it clear that we were chosen “in him” before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), and that as a result we are currently “in him.” The point of the “in him” language is not to show union per se, but to show the focal point of God’s good pleasure. Anyone—indeed, anything—“in Christ” is ipso facto “blessed with every spiritual blessing” and is “lavished with the riches of his grace.” The reason for this is because Christ is the very center of God’s “good pleasure” and “kind intention.” Hence, whatever is “in Christ” by extension becomes the object of God’s good pleasure.
But it isn’t until chapter 2 that the concept of union “with Christ” appears. When we were dead in our sins, we were “made alive together with Christ” (in time and at the point of belief). At that point God raised us up “with Christ” and “seated us together with him.” This occurs also at the point of belief, and after Paul has already mentioned the “working” of God which “He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places” (1:19-20). In other words, the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ occurred historically at a point in time; but our “death,” “burial,” “resurrection,” and “ascension” occurs at the point at which we are “saved through faith” (Eph 2:8-9).
You’ll recall we saw this same pattern in Colossians as well. Hence, when Dr. White states . . .
Regarding Galatians 2:16-20, I do not see the application made by Dr. Svendsen. Paul's sustauro,omai ("to be crucified together with") is very difficult to understand if, in fact, it is referring to an event years after Christ's death;. . . I think the opposite point is established on exegetical grounds, not only in the text of Ephesians 2 and Colossians 2—3, but also in the Galatians 2 text.
To reiterate a point of Dr. White that I previously addressed only briefly, to wit:
and note that while Paul is indeed speaking of his life at that time, he has no problem pointing back once again to the clearly substitutionary death of Christ in the words "who loved me and gave Himself up for me."Indeed, and as I mentioned before, I would never suggest otherwise. Our union with Christ’s death at the point of belief has an historical referent to the act of Christ on the cross. But when did Paul “die” according to Gal 2:19? “For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God.” Paul here makes the same point he’s already made in Colossians 2; namely, that the point of “death” is sometime after he had experienced being “bound” by the law (“the elementary principles of the world”); hence, that death is both “with Christ” and “to the law” (or, “to the elementary principle of the world”; Col 2:20). Paul’s commentary on what it means to “die to the law” is found in the very next verse: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” The phrase “no longer (ouketi) strongly suggests (if not proves altogether) that the point at which Paul ceases to “live” (i.e., “dies”) and Christ begins to “live in” him is the same point at which he was “crucified with Christ” (i.e., died “with Christ” and “to the law”).
Dr. White continues: “And I do not believe He substitutionarily, purposefully, intentionally, out of redemptive love, bore in Himself the penalty due to the sin of Pharaoh.”Nor do I. But could he have borne that sin to serve as the basis for the condemnation of Pharaoh, who persisted in unbelief?
Dr. White continues:
As far as I can see, either the elect were united with Christ in His death en toto, or the entire idea of substitution becomes irrelevant. I believe the reality of our election in Christ makes our union with Christ a divine reality even before our temporal existence.But then does that same principle also apply to our “burial” with him, our “resurrection” with him, and our “ascension” with him? All of these things are said to occur at the point of belief. Are we predestined to these things? Of course we are; but I think that is a bit different from saying that they’ve already occurred or are already true of us prior to conversion.
Moreover, it seems to me that Dr. White may be inconsistent on this point. If we conclude that these things have already taken place in the elect in eternity past (“in toto”) just because they are certain to take place in time and just because Christ’s kind intention was always set on dying for his elect, then we could make that same case regarding justification and glorification as well. In God’s eyes, all he predestined he has already “justified” and “glorified” (past tense; Rom 8:30). All of that is true in the sense that the elect are certainly predestined to these things—and that they are so certain that they can be presented as a “done deal.”
But as certain as these things are to happen, Dr. White and I agree we cannot conclude that justification (much less glorification) has already been accomplished in the elect who have not yet believed. Dr. White has gone on record rejecting eternal justification. That means, as certain as it is that all the elect will be justified, and as certain as justification of the elect is well within the kind intention of his eternal will, his elect are nevertheless not actually justified in eternity past but at the point of belief. Why then must we conclude that our union with Christ in his death has taken place in eternity past just because it is certain we will experience that union with Christ in time?
Dr. White continues:
(as noted above: the eternal determines the form of the temporal, not vice-versa, though we as time-bound creatures, looking from "below," struggle to see this, and hence must allow the Word to be the lens through which we see this tremendous truth) and birth, so that in a very real sense the elect were, in fact, "crucified with Christ."Yes, and in a very real sense the elect have already been “justified” by God. But we don’t conclude on that basis that we were eternally justified—else there would be no more reason for us to be “justified by faith.” In the same way, just because our union with Christ in his death was in the mind, intention and will of Christ in eternity past does not mean we actually experienced union with Christ in his death before the point of belief.
Dr. White continues:
When we say that the death of Christ provides the "grounds" of forgiveness, but "is not the forgiveness itself," to what do we refer? I'm sure this is not the same as saying that death of Christ makes forgiveness a "possibility." Does it not, in fact, make the experience of forgiveness in time a certainty for all who are united to Christ? I believe it does.Let’s ask the question in the converse: If the atonement renders forgiveness a certainty, and if nothing else stands in the way of that forgiveness, then why are the elect not forgiven immediately once the work has been done? The very fact that Dr. White rejects eternal justification and recognizes a “gap” between whatever union with Christ took place in eternity past and the forgiveness of sins applied to each of the elect in time proves that he also recognizes there is an as-yet unfulfilled act of applying that forgiveness to individuals in time. What is it that prevents the application of the benefits of Christ’s death to the elect? We find in the New Testament that it is the state of unbelief that acts as the barrier to prevent a man—any man, elect or non—from enjoying the application of Christ’s death. For all the insistence from the limited atonement position that we are united with Christ in toto in eternity past and that union with Christ is all that is necessary for forgiveness of our sins, at the end of the day we both agree that the benefits of that atonement (viz., forgiveness of sins) is applied to no one who is in a state of unbelief, elect or non. Hence, there is a condition (of sorts) to be met before that atonement is applied, and that condition is faith.
Here we both acknowledge that the elect will unswervingly meet that condition because faith is granted to them by God, and that the non-elect will just as certainly not meet it. But that just proves my prior point that there is a difference to be made between the atonement itself (a finished work) and the forgiveness of sins that springs from that atonement but is conditioned on faith. Hence, if even the elect, who are most assuredly included in the extent of the atonement, can be called “children of wrath” and still remain unforgiven as long as they remain in unbelief—even though the work of Christ on the cross is complete—then, of course, there can be no objection to the notion that the non-elect are also included in the extent of the atonement, but that since their state of unbelief will continue perpetually, then the benefits of Christ’s death are commensurately withheld from them perpetually. In my opinion, there can be no sound objection to this view that does not result in insuperable inconsistencies.
Dr White continues:
Now, does it truly follow that if one believes Christ's death makes the forgiveness of the elect a certainty through union and substitution, that one should logically believe in eternal justification due to the phrase "children of wrath"? I do not believe so.I, on the other hand, think this conclusion is inescapable. If, as Dr. White asserts, forgiveness of sins is “through union with Christ,” and if that union with Christ took place in toto in eternity past, then it follows that the forgiveness also took place in toto in eternity past—or at the very least complete forgiveness of sins for all the elect would have had to occur at the time of the cross and no later. According to the limited atonement view, we were united with Christ in his death in eternity past, and if being united to Christ in his death means that we have complete and unfettered forgiveness (as Dr. White seems to imply), then that leads inescapably to the conclusion that all the elect have been forgiven all their sins and have therefore already been placed in right standing (“justified”) by God, likely in eternity past but definitely no later than the point of the cross.
In our next installment we will wrap up our thoughts concerning union with Christ, address the meaning of "reconciliation" in 1 Corinthians 5, and point out what could be the greatest weakness of the limited atonement position; namely, the answer to the question of how a man can be condemned for rejecting the gospel if the gospel is not offered to him in the first place. I have not yet read a satisfying answer to this question from the limited atonement camp. I will elaborate next time.